Ambassador Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci, Michel Sidibe, Kenneth Cole, Miss Universe, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Tom Harkin, and World Bank President Jim Kim among participants in event to “Make AIDS History.”
It already sounds like history now, before testing, before treatment, before activism, science, money and policy introduced hope into the time when an AIDS diagnosis meant nothing but death. One could almost believe, with the answers and enlightenment that have come since, that the time of AIDS-related deaths on great scale soon will be history. That is the plan as amfAR begins its “Countdown to a Cure,” an initiative launched in February with a target of finding a widely accessible cure for the virus that leads to AIDS in the next six years. In the meanwhile on Wednesday, a series of speakers took a audience on Capitol Hill through a tour of what it took to get to the point that nobody needs to die of AIDS, and what it will take to get to the point that no one does.
U.S. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) recalled meeting as “this young guy” three decades ago, was there with the reminder that for all the progress he had witnessed since the epidemic’s beginning, more than one and a half million people died because of HIV in 2012, while 2.3 million people became infected with the virus. He was there to talk about the promise of antiretroviral medicine to not only keep people alive, but keep people from infection, with pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) use of the drugs shown when strictly adhered to, to prevent acquisition of HIV more than 95 percent of the time. He was there to talk about the development of longer-acting antiretroviral drugs to improve those odds. In the front row U.S. Global AIDS Ambassador Dr. Deborah Birx smiled as he explained how the RV 144 HIV vaccine trial in Thailand — which she led during her years with the Military HIV Research Program — raises hopes that an HIV-preventing vaccine can someday supersede the need for PrEP. He was there to talk about the quest for a cure, bolstered by “Berlin Patient” Timothy Brown, and by the “Mississippi Baby,” both of whose cures shone light on avenues of research that continue. Fauci pointed to all of this to say, “We’re already on the downslope, but it isn’t acute enough.”
Partners in Health co-founder and chief strategist Dr. Paul Farmer was there to talk about what happens when the lab discoveries Fauci described are delivered to the people who need them (“the impact can be quite stunning”) and how paid, trained community health workers make that possible on the scale needed.
World Bank President and Partners in Health co-founder Dr. Jim Kim was there to recall the days when antiretroviral medicine saved lives in wealthy countries while people argued that getting antiretroviral medicine to everyone who needed it in countries with less money would be too difficult to attempt. He was there to discuss the proof since that the benefits of treatment in those countries can be three times greater than the costs, and he was there to assert “optimism is the moral choice.”
Amb. Birx was there to give her first public speech as U.S. Global AIDS Ambassador, and to show with data why the progress made has not been equally enjoyed. Countries where treatment has been made available on great scale faster have seen fewer infections, fewer deaths than those where the antiretroviral drugs were rolled out on a more gradual pace. Speed of expansion makes a difference, she said. “Do not underestimate the importance of focus and political will.” She was there as well to talk about the most recent challenges from new sweeping, restrictive antihomosexuality laws in Nigeria and Uganda, to recall the days when gay soldiers in the United States Military had to guard their secret, and to say, “If people don’t feel safe they will not access services.”
All of those luminaries in science, practice and policy were joined by more in those fields and others. Gabriela Isler, the reigning Miss Universe, who has made HIV one of her causes drew a circle of photographers after her talk. Designer Kenneth Cole who joined amfAR’s board in 1987 and has been its chair since 2005 was there, UNAIDS Director Michel Sidibe, Ugandan physician and human rights activist Paul Semugoma, White House National AIDS Policy Director Douglas Brooks, Journalist, author and advocate Regan Hofman, Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), and more, were there, as part of the mission Wednesday, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who also was there, said, “Any way to attract attention to this great challenge.”